NEW DELHI – As countries scramble to secure COVID-19 vaccines, ugly expressions like “vaccine race” and “vaccine nationalism” have entered the global lexicon. But, at a time when global cooperation in sharing vaccines is minimal, and the World Health Organization’s vaccine-distribution plans are yet to get off the ground, India has taken a different tack, quietly pursuing “vaccine diplomacy.”
Its “Vaccine Maitri” (Vaccine Friendship) campaign has shipped hundreds of thousands of Indian-made Covishield vaccines, manufactured under license from Oxford-AstraZeneca, to some 60 countries.
India is a global pharmaceutical powerhouse, manufacturing some 20% of all generic medicines and accounting for as much as 62% of global vaccine production, so it was quick off the mark when the pandemic struck. Before COVID-19 vaccines were developed, India supplied some 100 countries with hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol, and sent pharmaceuticals, test kits, and other equipment to around 90 countries.
Later, even before the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was approved, Adar Poonawalla, the 40-year-old head of the privately-owned Serum Institute of India, audaciously decided to manufacture it — a billion-dollar gamble. When approvals came, SII was able to churn out millions of doses, making them available to the government both for domestic use and export.
Indian vaccines have been flown to most of the country’s neighbors, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and Nepal, and also farther afield, to the Seychelles, Cambodia, Mongolia and Pacific Island, Caribbean and African countries. Vaccines have helped mend strained relations with Bangladesh and cement friendly ties with the Maldives.
To be sure, China and Russia are promoting their own vaccines, and Western drug companies are raking in a publicity bonanza (along with a share-price windfall). But in developing vaccines for its own use, the Global North overlooked the prohibitive cost of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for poorer countries. Indian-made vaccines, on the other hand, are reportedly safe, cost-effective, and — unlike some others — do not require storage and transport at very low temperatures.
India’s vaccine diplomacy is, of course, not purely altruistic. When the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, laid the foundations of India’s science and technology infrastructure, his intentions were expressed in noble, humanist, and universalist terms.
But his successors have long recognized how India can leverage its scientific and medical skills to enhance its geopolitical standing. At a time when most richer countries are criticized for hoarding vaccine doses, India stands out for having sent 33 million to poorer countries, with millions more in the pipeline.
There is also an unspoken subtext: rivalry with China, with which tensions have intensified following clashes along the Himalayan frontier. Not only has India overshadowed China as a provider of cheap and accessible vaccines to the Global South; it has been quicker and more effective. For example, China has announced 300,000 doses for Myanmar but is yet to deliver any, while India quickly supplied 1.7 million. Similarly, Indian vaccines beat China’s into Cambodia and Afghanistan.
When a credibility crisis consumed China’s vaccines in pandemic-ravaged Brazil, with polls showing 50% of Brazilians surveyed unwilling to take the Sinovac vaccine, President Jair Bolsonaro turned to India, which came through promptly. Tweeting his thanks, Bolsonaro illustrated his gratitude with an image from India’s Ramayana epic, depicting Lord Hanuman carrying an entire mountain to deliver the life-saving herb Sanjeevani booti to Lanka.
Indian vaccines are arriving even in richer countries. The United Kingdom has ordered 10 million doses from SII. Canada, whose prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has riled his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, more than once, telephoned Modi to ask for 2 million vaccines; the first half-million were delivered within days. Trudeau effusively declared that the world’s victory over COVID-19 would be “because of India’s tremendous pharmaceutical capacity, and Prime Minister Modi’s leadership in sharing this capacity with the world.”
India is using the country’s capacity in this sector subtly to advertise an alternative to China’s economic and geopolitical dominance. While China has been secretive in releasing data about its vaccines, leading to controversies over the efficacy of them, India organized trips for foreign ambassadors to visit pharmaceutical factories in Pune and Hyderabad.
The contrast with the behavior of wealthier countries is no less striking. According to Duke University’s Global Health Institute, developed countries with 16% of the world’s population — including Canada, the United States and the U.K., each of whom have guaranteed enough supplies to vaccinate their populations several times over — have secured 60% of global vaccine supplies for themselves. Other countries commandeering supplies exceeding their domestic needs include Australia, Chile and several European Union members.
The world is paying attention to India as it shares its available vaccine supplies, instead of choosing the nationalist course of blocking exports. India has also offered 1.1 billion vaccine doses to the WHO’s COVAX program to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries. As Modi has tweeted, “We are all together in the fight against this pandemic. India is committed to sharing resources, experiences and knowledge for global good.”
If there is a concern, it is that India has exported three times as many doses as it has administered to its own people. The country is lagging behind its own target of immunizing 300 million people by August, after vaccinating some three million health-care workers in a campaign that began on Jan. 16. And mounting concern about rising case numbers, the emergence of COVID-19 variants that may not respond to existing vaccines and an economy that has not yet fully recovered, will intensify the challenge India confronts in fulfilling its obligations to developing countries while also meeting domestic demand.
Meeting that challenge is a vital national interest. India’s vaccine diplomacy has been a boon to the country’s aspirations to be recognized as a global power. In combating the pandemic, it has gone well beyond the routine provision of health care or the supply of generics.
To be sure, it is uncertain whether promoting soft power through healthcare exports significantly boosts a country’s position in the global order. But if and when the permanent seats at the United Nations Security Council are ever rearranged, grateful governments will know who has done the most to save a world reeling from the onslaught of a deadly pathogen.
Shashi Tharoor, a former U.N. under-secretary-general and former Indian minister of state for external affairs and minister of state for human resource development, is a lawmaker for the Indian National Congress. ©Project Syndicate, 2021
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